College of Education and Human Development

Alumni Spotlight

My Road to Higher Education

I come from a two-person family: my mother and me. My mother spoke in broken English and had an even more limited educational background. At the age of 10, I was designated “translator of the house” and, more important, “the man of the house.” As we moved from one side of town to another, we finally settled on the West side of San Antonio where the mean salary is well below those of other parts of the city.

In 1981, our rent was $175, a fortune to my mother, but for the first time during my childhood, she provided me with my own room and my own bed. I remember that my bedroom wall had a hole so large that I could actually stick my arm through it and feel the air outside. To patch the hole, my mother used cardboard and a poster of the Virgin Mary. My mother and I would hunt for glass bottles and aluminum cans to sell to the local grocery store to generate enough money to pay our bills. During those years, I thrived in elementary school. I earned straight A’s and read at an 11th grade level, but soon my education would have to take a backseat to poverty. My mother was proud of my academic achievements, so much so, that she would display my awards and certificates on the wall for all to see. She bragged so much that it made me somewhat embarrassed of my accomplishments. At fourteen, I worked at a local grocery store and was in charge of packing glass bottles and stocking the bread aisle. All the money I earned went to pay for the mounting bills, and I soon grew more concerned with making money than with getting good grades. I graduated from high school with mediocre grades, mainly B’s and C’s, because I really never understood that education could be my way out of poverty. At this point, I was not concerned with academic lessons, but with the life lessons that build character, and a strong moral fiber. These lessons were instilled in me by a parent who was truly doing her best to provide for her only child in the best way she could.

A few months after my high school graduation my mother began experiencing severe headaches, but we both thought they had resulted from a minor cold she had. Unfortunately, the prognosis was much more serious. At the age of 39, my mother was diagnosed with brain cancer. Within a year of receiving this heartbreaking news, we could no longer afford to pay rent, or our car payment. It wasn’t long before a sheriff knocked on our door and ordered us to leave our home because our rent was four months in arrears. I quickly found myself homeless, and in debt with a terminally ill mother to care for. I collected whatever possessions that would fit into my friend’s car, and that was all we took to start our new lives. I checked my mother into the Siesta Motel, because I knew that I could afford the weekly rate, and because the motel was in close proximity to her cancer treatment center. A week later, I was able to lease a small apartment that would serve as our makeshift home. Between my mother’s chemotherapy, and working two jobs, I tried to attend college, but in my situation, education was just not a priority.

It was during this time that I mustered all the courage I could for the monumental responsibility that comes along with tending to a dying mother. As her condition worsened, my mother could no longer speak, and I could see in her eyes that she loved me, but that she had grown tired of living with the pain. I had come to acknowledge and accept the fact that my mother would lose her battle with cancer, and that it would only be a matter of time before I would be alone. It was painful to lose her, but I never forget all that she had done for me, and what a significant influence she would always have on me.

Very few people can really comprehend what it means to be utterly alone. As a young adult, I had lost everything I had come to know in life. I fell into a deep depression, and drifted from place to place, just as I did when I was a child, but this time with no family as foundation, and no concept of how to approach my fragmented life. I drove around the local loop, and thought, “my life is ruined forever.” However, I quickly realized that I did have a reason to go on: I had to make my mother proud. This was a time to sink or swim, and I decided to swim to survive. While in “survival mode,” I worked low-wage positions, but never really felt content. Yet, I could think of no way out. My options were limited, and I knew if I quit, I would just be leaving one minimum wage job for another. I resigned to this fact and eventually found a place, settled in, and then contemplated about what my next move would be. Unfortunately, for many years, surviving became a way of life, and my contemplations soon stagnated.

When I was 29 years old, I worked in a neighborhood pawnshop as a broker. I remember arriving to work one winter morning, cold and drenched from having waited in the rain for a bus. My supervisor, a 22-year-old who had recently acquired an associate’s degree, and a self-appropriated sense of power, insisted that I pick up cigarette butts from the parking lot. It was then that I wondered if this job was worth the seven dollars an hour I earned.

As I swept the parking lot of its cigarette butts, the thought of attending college swept through my mind. It was then that I had an epiphany: I knew that I had to make a change if I wanted to have a better life, and while no one in my family had attended college before, I decided, at that moment, that higher education would be the answer for a new beginning. However, I immediately began to have doubts. Here I would be, 29-years-old, and starting college? I remember thinking that I was too old, and that it would be too late to start my life over. Yet, something inside me forced away those murky thoughts. After so many years of mourning, I realized that my mother had worked too hard for me to float through life. By this time, I knew that I had matured, I didn’t have a choice in that matter, and I knew that I had gained the moral compass that could lead me to success, but, more importantly, I knew that I would have to earn this on my own. To be frank, I was not ready to become a student because I felt that I did not possess the skills needed to be successful. I decided that if I went back to school, I could actually enhance and fulfill not one life, but two lives. At that point, I realized education was my only option.

In the beginning, I was an unconventional student, and I found difficulty in adjusting to working full time, finding time for my social passions, and earning top grades. However, I had transformed my perspective, and I was now ready to tackle the hard work necessary to be successful. I enjoyed education so much that I decided to make it my career, and became an educator. When I became a teacher, I decided to work for the same district I attended as a child, and although I have since had several opportunities to leave San Antonio Independent School District for better income, I haven’t. I am a person devoted to giving back to my community. Having obtained a graduate degree in counseling, I have a specific skill set that allows me to understand the hardship that many of these families might be experiencing.

While employed with SAISD, I was appointed Coordinator for State Testing for Homebound Services; which offers a clear indication of how much the district values my talents, and hard work. As a coordinator, I am responsible for testing all homebound children that are enrolled at non-traditional campuses, as well as leading, and training psychologists, social workers, and educational diagnosticians with state assessments procedures. I have also had the unique opportunity to work as a traveling teacher, where I provide educational services for physically, and emotionally disabled children. I chose this position not only for the challenge, but also because I have gained the emotional and intellectual capacity that is needed to help their families deal with their delicate situations.

After having worked with so many families in crisis I came to realize that, as a lawyer, I could better help these families on a large scale; therefore, my goal, now, is to obtain a law degree. It is my hope to start a non-profit agency that would provide legal advice to underprivileged families. I also intend to provide after school programs that would inform and educate students who are interesting in pursuing law school by providing them with a roadmap to navigate through the processes involved in applying for law school. More importantly, I want them to acknowledge that I am a person from the same environment who has succeeded. While I know that law school will not define who I am, I know that earning my law degree will enhance my life and open new opportunities professionally and personally. Emotional fortitude, and social awareness are vital components to my character, and, no doubt, will help to make me a leader in law school.

After living a life that might be considered, by some, to have been highly unconventional, I have survived, I have triumphed, and, more importantly, I have exceeded even my most personal expectations. Through hard work, and an immeasurable desire, I know that I am ready for the transformation that law school will procure. I take with me my life story, and the crucial lessons that cannot be learned in any law classroom, or any university in the world. These lessons of love, understanding, and compassion have shaped me, and still influence my life every day. In my heart, I am still my mother’s son, and I am still that kid who had to pick up glass bottles, and cigarette butts to survive. I am still that person who has persevered through all of life’s adversities. I am the American Dream.

Sometimes, it takes the common acts of professors to see something special in a person that has not yet developed one’s own vision. Therefore, I would like to thank the following people: Dr. Mendez-Negrete, Professor Roger Enriquez, Assistant Dean Paige Smith, Dr. Eisenberg from the Honors College, and especially Dr. Gambitta, who has mentored me on my journey towards law school.

Success In and Out of the Classroom

Dr. Geri Berger, two-time alumna of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, principal of Brandeis High School in the Northside Independent School District, and lecturer at UTSA, has been named 2011 Texas High School Principal of the Year by the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals (TASSP).

Dr. Berger received her M.A. in Education (Educational Leadership concentration), Texas Principal and Superintendent Certifications, and Ed.D. in Educational Leadership, all from UTSA. Berger was selected for this high honor in the annual statewide competition sponsored by TASSP, the professional association for secondary school principals in Texas. After being nominated for the award, which judges practicing principals in the areas of collaborative leadership, personal excellence, curriculum/ instruction assessment, and personalization of the school environment, Berger was named the outstanding secondary school principal and later named as one of the three finalists for the award. Berger then interviewed before a panel of judges, and learned on Monday, December 6, 2010, that she is the recipient of the TASSP High School Principal of the Year for the state of Texas.

Prior to being named as the founding principal of Brandeis High School, Dr. Berger served as principal of Business Careers High School in the NISD, and as vice-principal and assistant-principal at O’Connor High School. Her teaching experience includes service as an English teacher at both O’Connor and Marshall High Schools, all in NISD. Among her many distinctions, Dr. Berger has served on the statewide Academic Decathlon Committee and as a member of the Northside ISD Foundation Advisory Committee. Dr. Berger completed her Ed.D. in 2009, under the mentorship of ELPS professor Dr. Alan Shoho.

Dr. Berger is very grateful to both UTSA and Northside ISD for her professional development and the opportunities to lead, noting that “UTSA provided me with the educational foundation for my career; Northside ISD then presented me with numerous opportunities to utilize my leadership skills. Throughout my administrative career, I have been fortunate to work with phenomenal people who are genuinely concerned about the well-being of the students.”